This week, with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, we entered a period of semi-mourning in the Jewish calendar known as the Three Weeks, which will culminate with the Fast of Tish`a B’Av on July 31-August 1.
For the next three weeks, Ashkenazi Jews don’t hold weddings, haircuts and live music are avoided (many extend the prohibition to recorded music), and we even try to avoid saying the blessing “Shehecheyanu.” The mourning becomes more intense in the nine days leading up to Tish`a B’Av, when we don’t eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat) until finally on Tish`a B’Av itself we refrain from eating and drinking altogether, and even such basic pleasures as bathing and wearing leather shoes.
It used to strike me as strange and inconvenient that this period of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple would fall in the middle of the summer, a time when life is so full of joy. The days are long, students and teachers have long vacations, fresh produce is delicious, abundant, and inexpensive, and many municipalities hold free outdoor concerts and other festivities. What a terrible time to be avoiding music, weddings and celebrations.
The truth is, it is precisely in our joy that we need these reminders that our world is incomplete. In January, when the days are short and dark and cold, and all I want to do is stay home with a cup of hot tea, mourning for the temple would almost be extraneous. It is in the summer months, when the beauty and pleasure of this world are so obvious, that I need to be reminded that we are still living in an unredeemed world, we are still living in exile, and there is much work that needs to be done.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of this world, going to concerts, but there is a danger that we will let the joy and beauty of it blind us to larger concerns, to the deep brokenness of our world. More fundamentally, there is a danger that in our enthusiasm for the pleasures of this world, at their peak in this season, we will forget that this world is not all there is, that beyond the life of the body there is a life of the spirit.
So, for three short weeks in the middle of the summer, we gradually reduce our joy, until on Tish`a B’Av, we remove ourselves for one day from all worldly pleasures. These weeks, which fall in the midst of the joyous summer, like the corner of a house left unpainted, or the wine glass broken at a wedding, remind us to “elevate Jerusalem above our highest joy.”
May we see Jerusalem rebuilt and at peace speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein